WHAT IS A DESERT?

Approximately one-third of the Earth's land surface is desert, arid land with meager rainfall that supports only sparse vegetation and a limited population of people and animals. Deserts stark, sometimes mysterious worlds have been portrayed as fascinating environments of adventure and exploration from narratives such as that of Lawrence of Arabia to movies such as "Dune." These arid regions are called deserts because they are dry. They may be hot, they may be cold. They may be regions of sand or vast areas of rocks and gravel peppered with occasional plants. But deserts are always dry.

Deserts are natural laboratories in which to study the interactions of wind and sometimes water on the arid surfaces of planets. They contain valuable mineral deposits that were formed in the arid environment or that were exposed by erosion. Because deserts are dry, they are ideal places for human artifacts and fossils to be preserved.

Deserts are also fragile environments. The misuse of these lands is a serious and growing problem in parts of our world.

There are almost as many definitions of deserts and classification systems as there are deserts in the world. Most classifications rely on some combination of the number of days of rainfall, the total amount of annual rainfall, temperature, humidity, or other factors. In 1953, Peveril Meigs divided desert regions on Earth into three categories according to the amount of precipitation they received. In this now widely accepted system, extremely arid lands have at least 12 consecutive months without rainfall, arid lands have less than 250 millimeters of annual rainfall, and semiarid lands have a mean annual precipitation of between 250 and 500 millimeters. Arid and extremely arid land are deserts, and semiarid grasslands generally are referred to as steppes.

How The Atmosphere Influences Aridity

We live at the bottom of a gaseous envelope since the atmosphere is bound gravitationally to the planet. The circulation of our atmosphere is a complex process because of the Earth's rotation and the tilt of its axis. The Earth's axis is inclined 231/2° from the ecliptic, the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. Due to this inclination, vertical rays of the sun strike 231/2° N. latitude, the Tropic of Cancer, at summer solstice in late June. At winter solstice, the vertical rays strike 23 1/2° S. latitude, the Tropic of Capricorn.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice day has the most daylight hours, and the winter solstice has the fewest daylight hours each year. The tilt of the axis allows differential heating of the Earth's surface, which causes seasonal changes in the global circulation. On a planetary scale, the circulation of air between the hot Equator and the cold North and South Poles creates pressure belts that influence the weather. Most of the nonpolar deserts lie within the two trade winds belts. Air warmed by the sun rises at the Equator, cools as it moves toward the poles, descends as cold air over the poles, and warms again as it moves over the surface of the Earth toward the Equator.

This simple pattern of atmospheric convection, however, is complicated by the rotation of the Earth, which introduces the Coriolis Effect. To appreciate the origin of this effect, consider the following. A stick placed vertically in the ground at the North Pole would simply turn around as the Earth rotates. A stick at the Equator would move in a large circle of almost 40,000 kilometers with the Earth as it rotates.

The Coriolis Effect illustrates Newton's first law of motion: a body in motion will maintain its speed and direction of motion unless acted on by some outside force. Thus, a wind traveling north from the equator will maintain the velocity acquired at the equator while the Earth under it is moving slower. This effect accounts for the generally east-west direction of winds, or streams of air, on the Earth's surface. Winds blow between areas of different atmospheric pressures. The Coriolis Effect influences the circulation pattern of the Earth's atmosphere. In the zone between about 30° N. and 30° S., the surface air flows toward the Equator and the flow aloft is poleward. A low-pressure area of calm, light variable winds near the equator is known to mariners as the doldrums.

Around 30° N. and S., the poleward flowing air begins to descend toward the surface in subtropical high-pressure belts. The sinking air is relatively dry because its moisture has already been released near the Equator above the tropical rain forests. Near the center of this high-pressure zone of descending air, called the "Horse Latitudes," the winds at the surface are weak and variable. The name for this area is believed to have been given by colonial, sailors, who, becalmed sometimes at these latitudes while crossing the oceans with horses as cargo, were forced to throw a few horses overboard to conserve water.

The surface air that flows from these subtropical high-pressure belts toward the Equator is deflected toward the west in both hemispheres by the Coriolis Effect. Because winds are named for the direction from which the wind is blowing, these winds are called the northeast trade winds in the Northern Hemisphere and the southeast trade winds in the Southern Hemisphere. The trade winds meet at the doldrums. Surface winds known as "westerlies" flow from the Horse Latitudes toward the poles. The "westerlies" meet "easterlies" from the polar highs at about 50-60° N. and S. Near the ground, wind direction is affected by friction and by changes in topography. Winds may be seasonal, sporadic, or daily. They range from gentle breezes to violent gusts at speeds greater than 300 kilometers/hour.

Where Deserts Form

Dry areas created by global circulation patterns contain most of the deserts on the Earth. The deserts of our world are not restricted by latitude, longitude, or elevation. They occur from areas close to the poles down to areas near the Equator. The People's Republic of China has both the highest desert, the Qaidam Depression that is 2,600 meters above sea level, and one of the lowest deserts, the Turpan Depression that is 150 meters below sea level.

Deserts are not confined to Earth. The atmospheric circulation patterns of other terrestrial planets with gaseous envelopes also depend on the rotation of those planets, the tilts of their axes, their distances from the sun, and the composition and density of their atmospheres. Except for the poles, the entire surface of Mars is a desert. Venus also may support deserts.